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Recent Nikon Interview Leads to Question: ‘Where is the Differentiation?’

Nikon China recently invited members of the media to its headquarters in the region where the developers of the Z7 II answered many questions about the new camera and Nikon’s future. After reading responses, Nikon expert Thom Hogan questions what Nikon has done to differentiate itself.

Hogan may be familiar to some thanks to his editorial last month where he encouraged Nikon fans not to panic at Sony’s Alpha 1 announcement. Hogan claims to be plugged into Nikon’s plans for the future and offered several answers to pressing questions about what the company might be producing in the near future.

But even Hogan seems unimpressed and a bit confused with what he is hearing out of Nikon engineers during media briefings. With regard to this set of answers in particular, Hogan seems concerned that Nikon poorly differentiates its products from competitors’ offerings.

“The thing that struck me most about the overall interview, both in context and specific answers, is that Nikon doesn’t have a strong sense yet of differentiation, at least at the marketing end,” he says.

In the interview, Nikon Z7 II engineers state that the primary benefits of the new camera are improvements to focus and image processing, better battery life, better buffer and continuous shooting performance, and improved video functions among other things. All these adjustments are modest improvements and while welcome, are not particularly impressive when compared to the competition.

“That’s not a great ‘marketing’ list, as all those things are mostly subtle changes to edge cases,” Hogan writes. “The heavy-hitting improvements aren’t really there — pixel count, global shutter, improved low light capability, better viewfinder (no blackout), and so on.”

There is some sentiment in the photography community that the Z7 II and Z6 II feel like they mostly have improvements to functionality that could have been implemented via firmware update. Based on how Nikon responded to the Chinese press, Hogan believes that the reason Nikon did not do that was to create a more defined line between the older models and new ones. Without that, there would not be much in the new cameras worth upgrading for.

Whatever the case may be, Hogan seems to be arguing that Nikon isn’t doing enough with its features to compete well with market leaders. Incremental, modest updates are always welcome, but Nikon is seemingly lacking direction with why its cameras are better than those from Sony or Canon.

Additionally, Hogan admits that Nikon seems sincere in its attempts to understand user requests for its cameras and regularly seems to be addressing specific concerns, but fears that Nikon may be approaching the problem the wrong way.

“If you poll users about things to add, change, or improve, they’ll give you a list, but that list probably isn’t as important as finding the pain point the user doesn’t realize they have, or can’t express well, and fixing that,” he says.

Hogan’s full reaction piece to the Nikon interview in China can be read here.

More Than a Suit: Canon’s Technical Advisor is a Photographer Through and Through

Drew MacCallum is Canon’s Technical Advisor and one of my go-to resources for complicated camera questions. I also happen to follow him on Instagram, which is where I noticed he started posting some stellar bird photos.

After seeing a plethora of incredible images make it to his feed, I decided to reach out to MacCallum to ask him about his art, which is the first time we’ve started a conversation that wasn’t based on questions regarding the technical specifications of Canon’s latest camera. It was a nice break from our usual highly technical talks. It turns out that despite his recent years as the voice for the nitty-gritty of what makes Canon’s cameras tick, MacCallum is a nearly 30-year veteran of the photography discipline.

“I actually started working for a portrait and wedding studio for a summer job in high school and the owner felt the best way for me to learn was to put me in the darkroom,” MacCallum tells me. “I knew nothing about photography. That was 29 years ago, and I’ve been in the professional photo industry ever since. I have worked for a lot of different studios, agencies, newspapers, magazines, and in camera stores before becoming a Field Educator for Canon in 2007.”

It’s really easy to paint these camera executives as just guys in suits, but MacCallum reveals that at least in his case, he’s just like us: a photographer and a lover of the art.

Canon EOS R5, RF800mm F11 IS STM

MacCallum tells me that over that period he has photographed a wide variety of subjects, from brides to babies and athletics to commercial beverage imagery, he’s pretty much run the gamut. MacCallum has even photographed the Super Bowl. There is no doubting based on his resume: the man has photography chops. Lately, however, he’s turned to birding.

“I guess photographing birds came from a love of going to airshows and for developing different skills I would need for various types of subjects whether its athletes, birds, or planes; managing exposure as the light changed, shutter speeds to capture that perfect prop blur of antique planes or trying to catch a team of military jets crisscrossing at the perfect moment. These are skills I felt always helped with the paying jobs – responding to changing light at social events or happening now news, players movement in sports or sometimes it’s just getting more familiar with the camera’s buttons and layout, so it becomes second nature,” he says.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT | Shot at 560 mm

“As a field educator, we did workshops all over the country, but, since I was based in Atlanta, Georgia at the time, I had the opportunity to work with some amazing photographers down in Florida where it’s pretty ripe with places to go for wildlife,” MacCallum continues. “The Everglades are filled with animals, so in my downtime, birding just kinda came about as a fun thing to do. I know lots of people are in it for identifying and logging various birds on their list, I’m generally just honing my skills and trying to capture a scene that many people just don’t get the chance to see.”

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT +1.4x III | Shot at 784 mm
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM | Shot at 400 mm

It should come as no surprise that MacCallum uses Canon equipment, seeing as he’s an employee. But still, I was curious what cameras he is leaning towards using for his bird photography.

“I often have both the EOS-1D X Mark III and the EOS R5 in reach. There are times where the optical viewfinder of the 1D X is an advantage as well as the 16fps mechanical shutter,” he says. “The EOS R5 tops out at 12fps mechanical and those extra frames can be the difference between wing positions and that perfect composition. Other times, with the extremely low light early in the morning, the EFV can be an advantage. Of course, swinging a large 600mm lens around, the lighter body of the EOS R5 is a bonus, too.”

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

Hearing about the 1DX was an expected answer, but when MacCallum mentioned he was using the R5 I was surprised as I did not have a feeling it was high on the list for birding cameras.

“I’m not one to pigeonhole (forgive the bird pun) a camera for what its capable of, I mean, I often have a friend right next to me who is shooting with an EOS Rebel class camera and is getting fantastic images,” MacCallum explains. “The reason I reach for the EOS R5 is the file size and AF abilities. The Animal AF that tracks birds’ eyes is pretty spectacular and not just on paper. With a 45 megapixel file, I have tons of cropping power – even with a 600mm F4 L IS III USM lens, it’s almost never long enough.”

Canon EOS-1DX3, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT | Shot at 560 mm

Speaking of lenses, MacCallum was happy to share the optics he’s currently enjoying out in the field.

“For birding, you can almost never be close enough… or you’re too close. For that reason, I am generally using an RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 on one camera and a long fast lens on another if I can – generally an EF 600mm F4 L IS III USM. The RF extender 1.4x will also be in my lens pouch on my hip to add on if I don’t have the 600mm at the time. Sure, I sacrifice a stop of light, but that’s the only negative really. If I had one in my possession, the EF 200-400 F4 L IS USM would be another choice but, for now, I’m ok with these.”

I asked MacCallum what autofocus settings he uses on the R5 and if there were any other tricks he recommended to get great bird photos.

“This is where the EOS R series cameras shine- not that you could not do this with the EOS 1D or other series cameras, but the EOS R5 goes to another level,” he responds. “I have three AF buttons set up on the camera: the AF-On button is my main (it’s just a natural position for me) it is set to Servo AF, Face Detect+ Tracking, and Animal preference (you can choose people or animals). Eye detection is enabled, and the Servo Case is Auto, believe it or not.”

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM
Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

“Just to the right is the AE-Lock button or the * as some know it,” MacCallum continues. “With the EOS cameras of late, there is a function under ‘customize buttons’ called ‘Register/Recall Shooting Func.’ I have the * button set for AF -Expand Area (the 4 squares) as well as ‘Tracking Sensitivity’ set to ‘Locked on.’ This helps keep the AF point hold onto the subject as long as it can and not jump to something else in the frame it sees.

“The third button is one I don’t use often but for specific results: using the same ‘Register/Recall Shooting Func’ this button is set to change the mode to Tv at 1/60th, AF-Expand Area (the 4 squares), and Locked On tracking as well. This button is my ‘panning button’ when I have a situation that I want to blur the background, I just need to slide my thumb over to that button and the settings change as long as I hold that down. I let go, go back to AF-On and the camera is back to the previous settings I had. This is a trick I learned from a sports photographer how he sets up his EOS-1D X mark III’s.”

Canon EOS R5, RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM + EXTENDER RF2x | Shot at 902 mm

“One technique I do push to others is setting the Initial Servo AF pt. This, at first, may seem a bit confusing, but it really does help your keeper rate. Normally, if left at the default ‘Auto,’ and when the camera AF Mode is in a ZONE mode (other than Spot, Single Point, AF Expand Area, or AF Expand Area Surround), the camera AF points will grab the first thing its identified. This may or may not be your intended subject and when photographing a bunch of Canadian Geese flying at you, for example, it may find the bird lower in the frame, when you intended to focus on the lead Goose.

Canon EOS R5, RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM + EXTENDER RF1.4x | Shot at 700 mm

“With Initial Servo AF Pt, you have a single point in your viewfinder that is the ‘starting point’ for your AF selection. The focus will start from that chosen point and then use the whole AF area of the frame as the subject moves through the frame. When you stop focusing on that subject, the AF point returns to your selected spot and is ready to start from there again. It really makes it much easier to get on target quickly,” he explains.

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

I asked MacCallum to describe to me one memorable photo he shot and how he managed to capture it.

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

“The image shown with the eagle coming straight at me was one particular moment I was glad to have the R5. It was really low light just as the sun was coming up. The eagle was in a tree in a favorite spot and as usual, it was very backlit, so it was pretty tough to see. When the eagle dropped down, I just happen to be watching and the AF just locked on before I could even tell the bird was in flight. I was on a monopod and had the 600mm mounted but as the bird got closer and closer you could see Eye AF just stay locked on – all I had to do was keep composition (easier said than done with an eagle flying at you at up to 70mph). Sometimes the Eye AF and all the tech feels almost like cheating, but I really have a new ‘favorite image’ at least for a few weeks because of the abilities of the EOS R5.”

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

Finally, I asked if there was any advice MacCallum could give to those interested in improving their skills as a photographer, and not just at birding.

“It really all comes down to practice, practice, practice,” MacCallum says. “I know the thought is that the camera will make a better photographer, and to some extent it can. However, the photographer should still hone their skills. A camera is a tool, just like a frying pan or knives. A chef has to perfect their skills to create a 5-star meal. I like to cook, and have great cookware, but I’m no 5-star chef in any way. Get out there and practice. Also, don’t let the weather hold you back, some of the best images have come from some pretty crappy days and animals don’t care much about the weather.”

Canon EOS R5, RF600mm F11 IS STM

It is wildly refreshing to see that a Canon employee is able to practice what he preaches, so to speak. I think that what is special about MacCallum is that he’s specifically tasked with explaining the most technical details of a camera, the aspect of the business that is perhaps farthest removed from art, yet he is a fabulously talented artist in his own right. You love to see it.

You can see more of MacCallum’s photos on his Instagram.

Image credits: Photos by Drew MacCallum and used with permission.

Samsung Exec Envisions Future Where Photos Are Customized to the Shooter

Have you ever wondered why different manufacturers’ smartphone images have a certain “look” to them? In an interview with Engadget, Vice President and head of Samsung Mobile’s visual software R&D Joshua Sungdae Cho explains how images are rendered now will change going forward.

According to Engadget, it’s hard to find a review of Samsung’s latest flagship, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, that doesn’t call out the way the company chooses to render images: fine details are heavily sharpened – to a degree that may consider overkill – colors are pumped, and auto smoothing computationally “airbrushes” faces. For folks who are hobbyists and professionals in the photography space, these choices are bad individually but near sacrilegious when they happen all at the same time.

So why does Samsung do this? According to the interview, Cho says the company isn’t the one responsible for this kind of processing: the users are.

Samsung apparently doesn’t have an internal team that determines what images should look like, rather it uses crowdsourced data to determine what the average person believes looks best in an image. They do this by actually holding focus groups with users from around the world and ask them what about images they like and what could be improved. The goal is to try and pinpoint what aspects of an image the company can focus on to appeal to the most users the most amount of time.

The conversations can get pretty granular, though. In trying to suss out what people like about their favorite images, Cho says discussions can veer toward subjects like color tone and saturation, noise levels, sharpness of details, overall brightness and beyond, all so Samsung can tune its HDR models and its smart scene optimizer to deliver what he calls “perfectly trendy” photos.

Trying to please everyone all of the time is an impossible task, but Samsung seems intent on trying to do it.

That said, Cho seems to understand this method isn’t a sustainable practice and envisions a future where the same photo taken by multiple people will look different for each of them, with AI able to know exactly how to best please each individual.

“When there are ten people taking a picture of the same object, I want the camera to provide ten different pictures for each individual based on their preference,” Cho says.

The limiting factor to this future is, unfortunately, neural processing unit (NPU) technology. Right now, chip makers like Qualcomm are only in their third iteration of NPU technology, which is relatively young. For Cho, this is still the “initial stage” of development. But with the right investment into research and development of NPUs, it’s very likely that your Samsung phone will take photos that look nothing like the ones your friend takes on theirs.

Cho explains that the right neural engine could look at a person’s album to determine what they saved and what they deleted, examine the filters they use, and track trends with how the image might be edited.

“Those are some of the things that we could look at in order to ensure the system learns about the user,” he says.

For now, it’s unclear how close or far away that future is, and Cho wouldn’t say. What is clear is that chip makers have a way to go in order to keep up with the dreams and ambitions of people like Cho.

Engadget’s full interview is definitely worth your time if you’re interested in the future of computational photography and how a company envisions the future of smartphone image-making. You can read it here.

Image credits: Header photo by Dan Smedley.

‘I’m Not Going to be Putting This in a Portfolio,’ Bernie Meme Photog Says

One of the most widely published photos shot during the inauguration of Joe Biden this week doesn’t feature Biden at all, but rather Senator Bernie Sanders sitting in isolation while wearing a big coat and homemade mittens. In case you somehow missed it, the photo has taken on a life of its own as a viral Internet meme.

Freelance photojournalist Brendan Smialowski was documenting the event on Wednesday with his Nikon DSLR and telephoto lens when he captured the independent senator from Vermont sitting with his now-famous posture.

Embed from Getty Images

The pose did not go unnoticed, as soon a tsunami of clever memes began rolling over the Web.

After the meme went viral, Bernie Sanders’ campaign even turned the photo into a $45 “Chairman Sanders Crewneck” sweatshirt, with 100% of the proceeds going to the charity Meals on Wheels Vermont. The item has already sold out.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Smialowski reveals that he snapped a couple of quick shots of Sanders while his mind was actually focused on other politicians at the event who have been more prominent in the news in recent weeks.

“The picture itself is not that nice. It’s not a great composition. I’m not going to be putting this in a portfolio,” Smialowski tells Rolling Stone. “This exact moment, I took two photos. It’s funny because the second one — for me — I thought was better. But I sent the first one because the moment — his posture, his pose — is a little better. But the composition was garbage. It was messy, but it was a better moment.

“I always say that in photojournalism, composition comes second to content. And content is the moment. Make it look pretty after.”

As with many memes of this sort, the photographer behind the photo had no idea what was coming when he shot and submitted the photo — Smialowski says he shot the photo because it was a “nice moment” and a “good slice of life.” In fact, Smialowski says he would have never created a meme-worthy photo if he had the choice.

“If I could know, I would never take a meme,” the photographer tells Rolling Stone. “I would be more than happy to never have a meme.”

Canon’s Tsuyoshi Tokura on EOS R5 controversy – “I don’t think video-focused users are driving the reputation of this new product”

Canon’s imaging division general manager Tsuyoshi Tokura has given an interview to Japanese camera website Toyokeizai in which he touches on the EOS R5’s controversial debut for filmmakers. Tokura claims 8K went on there in an effort to be first ahead of other companies, and that he doesn’t care whether it attracts video users or not. There is no big mission to please us… If it gets through a shoot without overheating, we should be grateful but really Canon’s management doesn’t care. “I don’t think video-focused users are driving the reputation of this new product. However, I was particular about …

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